On the lengthy walk down the Seven Sisters road to White Hart Lane, there’s a banner outside one of the few reasonably priced pubs that wields a picture of Daniel Levy. The caption reads: “They have more ales than I have had managers.”
It’s a ringing endorsement of the pub, not so much for the Tottenham chairman of 16 years. Trigger-happy he may have been for the best part of his tenure, the main accusation that has been levelled at Levy over the years is that he is too heavily focused on the financial aspect of the game, although there is probably no such thing as being too interested in how well a club is run.
One only needs to take a glance across London towards the cautionary tale of Leyton Orient. The situation at Brisbane Road is desperate and Francesco Becchetti has deserved all the flak that has come his way. The Italian finally appears to be in talks to sell a club which he has set on a path to ruination for no reason other than pure spite. Rarely have Orient attracted so much attention, but it is right that individuals like Becchetti – or the Oystons at Blackpool, the other subject of a recent joint protest from fans of the two clubs – are held to account.
Sadly, owners and chairmen find themselves in the same unfortunate position as the referee or the linesman. They’re only noticed when things aren’t going so well. Who talks about the referee after the game unless they’ve clearly got something wrong? (That question is rhetorical; the answer is not José Mourinho) It’s easy to overlook those men and women running their clubs properly. Of course, the major difficulty is that the jury is still out on what constitutes a good owner or chairman.
The Daily Mail ran a scathing feature on Everton in 2011 titled ‘No money, no signings, and no hope … Everton are a club going nowhere’. It was a harsh summary of the admirable principles for which many neutrals admire the Toffees. Bill Kenwright has never starved, but the theatre producer and former Coronation Street man is not in the sleeping-on-a-pile-of-notes league now required. As such, he actively sought out proper backing, which they have secured from Fahrad Moshiri. That took putting aside his own love affair with Everton, though he still retains the chairmanship.
Small sections of Goodison Park will still be dissatisfied, as their new majority investor arrived at an unfortunate moment when the market was suddenly inflated and there is very little value out there. Yet an impressive balance has been struck between Moshiri, who fronts up the millions, and Kenwright, who has largely retained the identity and family spirit of the club.
Many of the Premier League’s more effective chairmen have a tendency to fly under the radar. They may attract the interest of their own club’s fans, but at a wider level, they are so often left unnoticed and unpraised.
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Stoke’s Peter Coates, owner of Bet365, would no doubt have given enormous odds on the Potters remaining in the top flight for a decade, but that is what they have done. In those 10 years, they have had just two managers in Tony Pulis and Mark Hughes. Stoke were never expected to last in the Premier League for as long as they have, firstly because of a bolshiness that football’s purists would rather see confined to the Championship, and secondly because they are generally punching above their weight.
They spent less than any other Premier League club last summer, and sold the second least, bringing in just under £2 million for the sale of Marc Wilson to Bournemouth. At every club, there will be fans who see net spend as an irrelevant notion used to justify mediocrity and the sale of players, but Stoke have a solid record. This season, they would be about mid-table if there were a net spend league, which, thankfully for Manchester City, there isn’t. As is to be expected, the signings are hit and miss. Of this season’s new acquisitions, Joe Allen has been fantastic and Saido Berahino not so much. Nevertheless, the experiment continues.
Stability is the prize, but aside from money, patience is the other investment that so many are reluctant to offer. Bournemouth’s Jeff Mostyn should be another shining example of a chairman who has shrewdly acquired a highly regarded young manager who wants whichever players are bestowed on him to try and play attractive football.
Apart from Arsène Wenger, Eddie Howe is the longest-serving Premier League manager, and his association with the Cherries goes back even further if you discount the year he spent with Burnley between his two stints on the south coast. Leaving Dean Court in the coming years will present challenges of its own that Mostyn and those around him will have to overcome, but Bournemouth is in safe hands.
The greater pressing issue is in staying up, which they have managed again, and continuing on the learning curve of how best to manage the influx of money from TV rights. Interestingly, of the seven clubs that spent less than Bournemouth, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Swansea and Hull are four of them. In other words, three of those four teams will be relegated, so Bournemouth have succeeded in exerting just the right amount of influence on the transfer market.
Should the EFL bow to the building pressure to do more to ensure their fit and proper persons test stands up to scrutiny, there are plenty of unsung heroes they can look to for inspiration. Instead, it’s more common to inspect the villains. Orient and their unpaid staff are an extreme case, and things rarely go as badly as they went at Portsmouth before the fans took over.
Mike Ashley is a household name for his problematic running of Sports Direct as well as Newcastle United, while Notts County’s demise captured the media’s imagination because of their status as the country’s oldest professional football club. The fact that they managed to drag Sol Campbell and Sven-Göran Eriksson along with them only made their near liquidation all the more newsworthy.
Similarly, Premier League fans will always retain an interest in Blackburn, who have become the first former champions to drop down to the third tier. After taking over at Ewood Park, the Venky’s gave themselves a pat on the back for their ambitious transfer plan, which included attempts to sign Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Raúl. For the last of that trio, they were willing to part with the generous sum of £3 million; pretty laughable, unless you’re a Blackburn fan.
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The EFL’s main deterrent to prevent poor practice has been to issue points deductions, which deal with the matter far too late and in many cases have only made things worse. On the other side of the coin, the biggest incentive for even the most disinterested owner is that they can eventually sell on at a profit. When Levy and his ENIC colleagues come to sell Tottenham, the company will do incredibly well out of the new stadium, the partnership with the NFL, and the new-found power of the Spurs brand.
As much as the supporters prefer to view their team as a sporting enterprise rather than a business, it is the club’s finances that ultimately decide whether they can progress on the pitch. So where can the authorities point to if they want evidence of a well-run model?
Fans want trophies, cheap tickets, a great atmosphere, to keep hold of their best players, and to buy exciting new players – that’s quite a long list of demands. Arsenal deserve to be seen as a fine example of a properly managed club, but after building the Emirates, it’s been difficult for them to tick every box. Yes the Gunners would like to be challenging for the title and not lose to Bayern Munich in the Champions League every year, but finishing in the top four for each of the last 20 years is a huge achievement, albeit one that may be coming to an end. Wenger may have lost his magic touch when it comes to silverware but there’s a reason the board have shown faith in him.
Perhaps Roman Abramovich deserves an honourable mention if it is indeed his ruthlessness (read: tendency to be completely unreasonable) that has seen Chelsea eclipse Arsenal as the most successful London side in recent years, but it would have been far more interesting to see him operate with a restricted budget.
Arsenal are not the only club who have had to cope with big changes. Rewind eight years to 2009 and Southampton were not only in League One but also in administration before Markus Liebherr bought them. Since inheriting the Saints in 2010, his daughter Katharina has put in a more convincing claim as the ‘First Lady of Football’ than the usual holder of that title, Karren Brady.
She has been forced to contend with the departures of Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman to Spurs and Everton respectively, while the first-team squad ought to have been decimated by the sales of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mané, Rickie Lambert and Victor Wanyama, among many others.
Liebherr’s reign hasn’t been without turbulence. The falling out with former chairman Nicola Cortese was a low point, but for all that, Southampton’s books are much healthier than they were and they look likely to finish in the top half for the fourth season in a row. A Chinese takeover from the Lander Holdings group is now on the horizon and if it is being met with trepidation, it should only serve as a reminder that Southampton are now an attractive proposition.
They say the quickest way to become a millionaire is by being a billionaire – and then buying a football club. That gives some idea as to the ridiculous level of investment required, and it’s almost remarkable that anyone is willing to make that sacrifice. Yet football ownership will always come with its perks, not least for those remaining individuals who genuinely seem to have their clubs’ best interests at heart
By Katherine Lucas @Kat_Lucas_